The norms of college protests in court

Arguments in a California courtroom revolve around this question: what are the norms governing college protests?

Sociologist Steven Clayman took the stand on Thursday, the final day of testimony. He is an expert in “speaker-audience interaction,” and has written a scholarly article titled, “Booing: The Anatomy of a Disaffiliative Response,” which examines environments such as presidential debates, TV talk shows and British Parliament. He believes audience participation cannot be prevented because members of the crowd are “free agents,” able to express approval or disapproval of what a speaker is saying.

Having watched a video of the Irvine 11 incident, Clayman affirmed that the audience response seemed to be a “normal and unavoidable” part of Ambassador Michael Oren’sspeech.

Lead prosecutor Dan Wagner then fired, “It’s unavoidable that 10 people would stand up with planned statements that have nothing to do with what the speaker is saying? . . . Are you saying that the only way to prevent [protests] is to put a straitjacket and muzzle on them?” The questions were stricken by the judge.
Ten UC Irvine and UC Riverside students have been charged with misdemeanor conspiracy to commit a crime and misdemeanor disruption of a meeting. To be convicted of the latter, one must commit an act that violates the “implicit customs” or “explicit rules” for the event. The defense team claims the defendants did neither, arguing that they were merely following the norms and customs of protests on college campuses.

So what exactly is “normal” college protest behavior? A number of colleges have faced these questions in recent years as protests have moved from just being outside the event to occurring during the event. Think the “Don’t Tase Me Bro” incident of 2007. Or witness the various pie-throwing attempts involving politicians. I wonder if this trial is then less about whether such actions are harmful but rather how these norms have changed over the decades and whether there is widely understood agreement about these changes.

Of course, this particular trial in California involves a number of contentious political and social issues.

I wonder if this case, and other similar ones, will lead to more schools creating more explicit rules about what is allowed and not allowed in on-campus protests and to make this information widely known.

Juror becomes Facebook friends with defendent during trial and is dismissed from the case

There are times to friend people on Facebook and times not to. One of the times to refrain should include when you are on a jury and you want to be Facebook friends with the defendant:

Jurors and defendants are not meant to be friends — even if it’s just Facebook friends.

Four charges of contempt of court probably drilled this point home for 22-year-old Jonathan Hudson of Arlington, Texas. While on jury duty, Hudson sent a Facebook friend request to the female defendant in the case.

He was dismissed from the proceedings following the friend request, as well as for posting case information on his profile. Afterwards, he contacted the defendant through a Facebook message to apologize…

His lawyer told the paper the mistake was “a reflection of the times.”

I’m sure someone could develop a defense for this: being Facebook friends isn’t the same kind of friendship that might compromise a decision in a court case. But that then gets into the interesting area of what exactly it means to be a friend on Facebook.

If this is a “reflection of the times,” it suggests people have difficulty knowing when using newer technologies, like Facebook or texting, is appropriate. The courtroom is probably one of the more conservative institutions where it takes some time to change behavior norms. Would Facebook ever be incorporated into courtroom and trial behavior? What if jurors had electronic devices that they could use to interact with each other as they are hearing cases?

Symbolic punishment? Fraudulent French trader ordered to pay $6.7 billion

The economic crisis has raised interesting questions about who is responsible. In the United States, much blame has been placed on the large financial institutions, investment firms and banks, who played a role (though others have also argued that the government and consumers share the blame).

But in the courts, blame could be assigned to any of these parties. In a recent decision in France, a trader who worked for France’s second largest bank was ordered to pay the bank $6.7 billion in damages for fradulent activity linked to the economic crisis. Here is a quick summary of the case’s outcome:

The court rejected defense arguments that the 33-year-old trader was a scapegoat for a financial system gone haywire with greed and the pursuit of profit at any cost — a decision sure to take some pressure off the beleaguered banking system overall.

By ordering a tough sentence for a lone trader, the ruling marked a startling departure from the general atmosphere of hostility and suspicion about big banks in an era of financial turmoil. It was a huge victory for Kerviel’s former employer Societe Generale SA, France’s second-biggest bank, which long had a reputation for cutting-edge financial engineering and has put in place tougher risk controls since the scandal broke in 2008.

Kerviel maintained that the bank and his bosses tolerated his massive risk-taking as long as it made money — a claim the bank strongly denied.

The story goes on to say that both sides, the trader and the bank, admitted to mistakes along the way. But the court ruling suggests that the trader was the culpable party.

The assignment of blame after large traumatic events is a fascinating phenomenon to observe. Who is eventually seen as the responsible party can depend on a number of factors including national culture, time in history, court cases, public opinion, and other particularities. Whoever becomes the scapegoat can often become the symbol of the traumatic incident, forever linking that person or party to phenomenon that are often quite complex.